Notes From a Native Son: Power Without Responsibility is the Prerogative of the Harlot

Hal Austin

Hal Austin

Liberal democratic journalism all over the civilised world is in serious trouble as the tectonic plates of state shift and re-assemble. In the UK, a continuing showdown between parliament (over expenses), the media (over hacking), the criminal justice system (over police abuse of power), is leading to a situation in which the outcome may well shape the nature of our democracy in the middle 21st century.

In Barbados this is reflected over the alleged use of a soft pornographic photograph to accompany a story which rightly should have been published by our popular press. The issue being contended is one of judgement, of the ability of senior journalists to make important decision in the public interest. It was Stanley Baldwin who said newspapers are the engines or propaganda of wealthy proprietors, but he concluded “…..power without responsibility (was) the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

Of course, a debate about the role of the press in a democratic society is healthy and has been part of the political furniture since the late 17th century (see: Emergence of a Free Press, Leonard W. Levy). The outcomes varied, from seditious libels, to the American constitutional First Amendment, the Seditious Act of 1798, right up to the UK’s Leveson Report and the continuing debate about privacy and freedom of information. The press has always been contentious.

Liberal Democracy:
As Louis W. Hodges has said (see: Defining Press Responsibility: A Functional Approach) by press responsibility it is generally meant the way journalists account for the performance of their responsibility. That is, defining the proper conduct of practising journalism. Journalists therefore are responsible for the accuracy of their work, but accountable to their news editors or overall editors. But it goes beyond this loose theoretical definition, especially when we talk about the fourth estate, a definition that came out of the late 17 century – referring to the clergy, nobility, commoners as the three primary institutions of 17th century society, and the newly invigorated press, as the Fourth Estate.

Although the principle stands, the shifts and changes in society will test out bias towards the important institutions of a liberal democracy: parliament, Church (established or disestablished), Monarchy (in a democratic Monarchy such as ours), then a long list of international organisations such as the United Nations, NGOs, big business, the super rich, World Trade Organisation, etc. Although the place of the press in this complex and confusing set of organisations is still unlocated, the reality is that we all look to the press to balance the power of parliament.

Although embedded in a free press is the right of anyone to call him/herself a journalist, it is still felt that those who aspire to be working journalists (journalism is a trade, not a profession), should go through some form of formal training and accreditation. In simple terms, in the wider world of liberal democratic journalism the training of new entrants has moved from on the job apprenticeships top college-based learning, yet neither the UWI nor community college has offered a world-class course for would-be journalists. But the volatile world of geo-politics, economics, science, sports and entertainment and specialist journalism is progressing at such a pace that it is futile to believe that ‘generalists’ can still operate with competence in this new environment.

It was this realisation that led me, at the height of the global financial crisis, to suggest to my managing director, Caspar de Bono, at Financial Times Group, that we should create a post-graduate degree in financial journalism jointly with a prestigious journalism school. We approached City University because, along with Caridff, it was recognised as one of the two leading journalism schools in Britain. Mr de Bono gave me permission to approached Prof Adrian Monck, then head of the school of journalism, and the rest, as they say, is history. In an unintended way, the course is now enormously popular with Asian students, in particular Chinese.

What Is Journalism For?
The role of journalism is to speak truth to the powerful, to defend the poor and marginalised, to protest against miscarriage of justice. It is not there to shore up the powerful, as a hiding place for those who seek status and influence, or to act as a career path for the well-connected. Most of all, journalism should not be used as the weapon of choice for the malicious, evil, angry, envious and twisted. Sometimes, journalism may get things wrong, it may mislead, it may even destroy the innocent, since it has no truth-testing mechanisms. Journalists have to depend on what they have been told to contacts of varying liability. However, at all times they must endeavour to be tellers of the truth. A journalism that is fraudulent is a publication or broadcaster that betrays the trust of its readers and listeners.

In any case, a lot of what passes for ‘news’ is scare-mongering, hysterical, threatening readers about their safety and overall lacks substance. In crime reporting, from violence to paedophilia, this kind of journalism is based on the doctrine of stranger/danger, the thesis that the people who pose the greatest danger to us are strangers. Or, another version, is that the evil and wicked must be loners, not part of conventional society, even though it is commonly believed that within all of us good and evil.

In reality, statistics from almost every region of the globe show that the greatest threat to our safety are not strangers, but those who we know and are close to us, such as relatives and loved ones. But it is very dangerous to tell young children that danger comes from those living in their homes and not from strangers. Just think what that would mean for the stability of the family – the corner stone of society?

In any case, contemporary journalism is predicated on an implicit ethical and moral contradiction: after the pornification of journalism for the last three decades on celebrity gossip, to now talk about the corruption of young people by internet porn. The internet is just another communicative vehicle, it is inanimate and does not write or photograph its victims. Mainstream journalism turned to soft porn and celebrity baiting as a form of monetisation of content because good, solid investigative journalism had become expensive, both in the time it took and the number of people deployed, and the huge legal risk if things went disastrously wrong. It was much easier to groom a few favoured celebrity public relations people to conspire with their clients to get the rather indiscreet picture, the revelation about their ‘private’ love lives, and so on.

The real fools in this grand conspiracy are the reading public, who not knowing of how so-called celebrities conspire with the media, would talk about the intrusion of privacy. This is but part of the dark shadow of contemporary journalism, the way journalists and their supposed victims (and those in positions of influence and authority) conspire on news stories.

Another betrayal of their readers by the media is the short attention span they give to events, with stories that only days earlier would have grabbed the front pages and the TV screens, suddenly relegated to nibs.
So, stories that were intended to stir emotions would be left unresolved as far as the readers are concerned.

Some time ago I wrote a Notes about a number of these incidents in the UK, but will give one that is now concerning the British media: the so-called slaves saved by police from a Brixton, South London, flat. One minute we were told how this elderly Asian couple had enslaved these three women for over three decades, right in the heart of civilised Britain.
Next we were told the couple had been arrested, but released on bail, so we were left to conclude they did not pose the threat the mass circulation tabloids had first suggested. Then we were told they were brainwashed, psychological handcuffs were used, not literal hard-metal ones. Then it emerged that they belonged to a small Marxist-Leninist-Maoist group, which was so way out that they must have been ‘crazy’.

The real problem with the initial reporting of this case is the enormous lack of knowledge of recent British political history by our leading contemporary journalists. Those of us who remember the 1960s and early 70s could well remember London and most of our universities and polytechnics being swamped with all kinds of break-away Marxist/anarchists/feminists/environmentalist groups. So, the group of itself was not a surprise, it was just a continuity of 1960s student rebellion, which gave, and continues to give, some of the most intellectually exciting debates in modern global history.

Those of us who spent our formative years in the trade in the shadow of Watergate and Muldergate, know full well the burden of responsibility that falls upon us. Even more than that, those of us, who through time have found ourselves in senior positions, have a duty – nay, an obligation – to pass on without fear or favour the lessons we have learned over the years. It is a duty I take quite seriously, still. The argument about an attack on the press is hysterical nonsense. I have said before and I say again: the press is part of the democratic system and it must play by the rules. It gets its legitimacy from the people and purports to speak in the public interest therefore this is a responsibility it must take seriously.

Development Journalism:
Fundamentally, development journalism is all about interrogating the institutions of power, not being deferential and kowtowing. It is about integrity, refusing free flights, accommodation and other expensive gifts from foreign governments and big businesses. In fact, even lunches and drinks should be declared in a publicly available register. It is about holding the institutions to account, reminding individuals of their responsibility, not only to the high offices of state, but to society in general.

Our leading publications should be interrogating the structure of our democracy, exposing its weaknesses and praising its strengths. However, this paucity of ideas, of expertise, has led to a culture of personal and vulgar abuse and pro-party hysteria masquerading as serious political debate. As a society we are much poorer because of this collective ignorance. The gaps in our journalism are there for all to see: lack of book reviews or any form of literary journalism (at least since the death of Wickham); no science journalism, leaving doctors as the only ‘scientist s’ in our public debate; nothing of significance about the arts; rabble rousing diatribes that pass for political journalism (where is the history of post-independence Barbados?); no economic or business journalism.

The Economics of Digital Publishing:
While the debate is concentrating on the practice of journalism, the business side is also worth considering. For all the muddled thinking about digital publishing and monetising content, the reality is that consumers’ disposal incomes are shrinking and, over and above this, people are increasingly reluctant to spend large amounts of money on a product that brings them information that, with time and inclination, is available free of charge on the internet.

Given this, there are two kinds of information that consumers would generally be prepared to pay for: information relevant to their career development, and information central to their leisure and sporting interests. Conventional news will remain free on the major and most popular websites, who cannot really charge for salacious bits of celebrity gossip. If the individual news sites and aggregators try to ‘monetise’ such information, then the celebrities and their publicity agents will resort to launching their own free sites and using social media to promote themselves. Other commercially minded people will set up rival sites offering access to free ‘news’, while introducing other charging models, such as advertising or charging individuals to publicise their information.

Analysis and Conclusion:
Many assumptions are made about journalism with each person defining and re-defining what journalism should be and what it is. Few, however, have taken any time out, even among those who make a living in the trade, to give it serious consideration. Journalism is not morally neutral, as has been generally accepted by the more thoughtful theorists. As an empirical discipline, it operates through the prism of the liberal democratic biases of our society and, in fact, these prejudices are embedded in its very key concepts: objectivity, balance, right of reply, etc. It varies from what constitutes a story – dog bites man is not a story, but man bites dog is, as any good news editor will say. The principle of popular journalism is driven in to every young trainee from day one: dog bites man is no story; man bites dog is a story. In other words, a story, however basic, must be ramped up, exaggerated, pumped for every jaw-dropping, terrifying angle that can be got out of it. The more scary, unusual, out of this world it is, the more it is considered to be a brilliant story. The thing about stories packed with such hyperbole is that readers rarely return to the scene of the crime, they hardly ever re-read stories for their original factual content. This failure of contemporary journalism is not just one of financial crisis, but more fundamentally a failure of ideas and creativity. I used to find it rather funny listening BBC Radio Four presenters interviewing BBC reporters who had just been parachuted in to some trouble spot about the history of the conflict and the personalities of the leading individuals. It was not only cheap, safe, conservative journalism, but it was a classic reinforcement of basic prejudices since the reporter was highly unlikely to challenge perceived biases with his/her professional reputation (and career) at risk.

In the final analysis, journalism must inform, educate and entertain; its content must also be relevant and interesting, but never vile and malicious. But by importing the vulgar supermarket trash that passes for news in some countries, every detail about some minor pop star, the Caribbean press has largely failed in its mission to educate and inform.

13 thoughts on “Notes From a Native Son: Power Without Responsibility is the Prerogative of the Harlot

  1. Come on Hal
    Everyone needs to “BIG – UP” their profession, but journalists are nothing more than official gossip managers and rumor filters.
    Just as politicians make a living out of people’s sheeplike tendencies to follow any joker who appears to ” know”, …. journalist make a living out of our, often malicious, need to mind other people’s business.

    Of course there are some positive spin-offs… exposing wrong, recognizing good, and building consensus. BUT there are equal, if not GREATER negatives too…
    …it is not as though journalists represent BBE or some IMPORTANT entity….
    It is not as though they have responsibility for justice, economic stability or defense….

    In the final analysis, um is just another ‘pick’ and it all boils down to the personal integrity, guts, balls and tenacity of the individual – JUST AS IT DOES FOR ALMOST EVERY OTHER PROFESSION OR JOB.

    Having said that though, the article sounds impressive as always – and Bushie would award you a PhD LONGGGG before George Braffit 🙂

  2. Yes, I agree that this makes an interesting ‘read’ despite the incorrigible tendency to self-inflate (the “nay”-ing, the “I went to see…and the rest is history”, the “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again” – reminiscent of Harold Wilson busily pulling himself up by the boot-straps), the repetition (did the tail need to wag the dog twice?), the inordinate length (OK well Friday IS Tolstoy day) and the more-than-a hint-of-the-derivative.

    Substantively, the piece (as usual in matters of this kind from H Austin) shows two fingers to the so-called ‘gutter’ press in the UK and seeks to draw an unfavourable comparison with the press here – though neither idea is developed.

    Now, I can’t help thinking that this is an aspect of the “incorrigible tendency”. IF you work within the bright shadow (or dark sunshine) of the Financial Times I can well see that newspapers like the Sun, Express, Mail and the rest might be very much beneath you. But is H Austin saying that your average security guard or shop assistant, in other words the ‘salt of the earth’, must indeed feed on a diet of Telegraph, Independent, Guardian or Times? That would be silly. Better to read something which does not PRETEND to be other than it is and so which gives expression to the intellectual claims of the very ordinary.

    As for here…..what is the circulation of the Advocate as compared with the Nation? The former might just pretend to be something in the H Austin line (and equally just a bore in layout and content). But, in any event, the comparison with the ‘Financial Times syndrome’ is grossly misplaced in the context of small jurisdictions where it simply cannot be expected that the range of products (as in UK) is sustainable and not least on economic grounds.

    Of course, I do realize that H Austin is fired up about the ‘sex in school’ thing. I totally disagree with him – but won’t go there again. In any event, for what it’s worth, I would want to say that the Nation actually does a pretty good job in catering for all tastes and I think we do a disservice to ourselves in incessantly ‘N-knocking’ it.

  3. Dr Clyde Mascoll continues to misinform many Barbadians in this country.

    In the latest piece in his column – What Matters Most, in the Thursday, Daily Nation newspaper of November 28, 2013, he unstudiedly writes that “Every effort is still being made to accommodate the excessive SPENDING of government by men who previously castigated the Sandiford Administration at the start of the 1990s.”

    Mascoll is totally and fundamentally wrong and incorrect to suggest, in his piece, that government is even SPENDING money, when it is clearly the case that government is neither getting nominal income nor nominal payments nor spending nominal income nor nominal payments

    To be getting nominal incomes or nominal payments means that any relevant body any relevant enterprise in Barbados – including the government – must be getting market incomes market payments through the use by others of money, directly or indirectly, from any amounts of nominal incomes, nominal payments, nominal transfers used up.

    To be making nominal expenditures means that any relevant body or relevant enterprise in this country – including the government again – must either be – through the use of money, directly or indirectly – making market expenditures of any amounts of nominal incomes, nominal payments, or nominal transfers so used up on (NOT any goods and services ) but on nominal incomes and nominal payments.

    Well, since the government does hardly get nominal income or nominal payments or does hardly make nominal expenditures, it must mean that it is substantially generally into transfers nominally of the nominal incomes, nominal payments and nominal transfers of others, and as is represented by transfers of the use of money from these entities to the relevant financial institutions, from one set of individuals and other entities, to other individuals and other entities.

    So Dr Mascoll is completely wrong and erroneous to be suggesting that government has so many of these revenues and expenditures and fiscal deficits, when it is clearly the case that it hardly has any of the sort.


  4. Anything outside of what we have just described pertaining to the subject of nominal incomes, nominal payments and nominal transfers and where government helps to actualize such, but is still purported by persons like Mascoll to be grossing revenues and rolling out expenditures, must mean then there has to be resort by some within and without government to the most prodigious most sickening most miasmatic manipulation and use of false, fraudulent and fictitious numbers in respect of the government’s so-called accounting/ reporting process.

    Therefore, can anyone understand this most stupid notion of printing money” and its use by persons like Dr. Mascoll?


  5. The paragraphs under the heading of developmental journalism could have been submitted by itself and your message would have been crystal clear Mr. Austin. Well articulated. If you were to do an audit of any newsroom’s staff you would discover that not many have benefited from formal training, despite the fact that one does not have to go to Jamaica anymore; courses are provided at BCC. Ethical responsibility, moral neutrality etc are foreign concepts. If you ever have the misfortune to vet unedited copy your stomach would turn over at the misuse of the language we know as English. (A friend of mine secretly reads some to me for dark laughs.) Gatekeepers like Senator Wickham, Pop Walker, Trevor Simpson Jeanette Layne-Clarke, Vic Brewster, Olwen Cumberbatch etc are no longer around. I don’t even know if the post of proof reader still exists. Who teaches those who learn on the job the difference between the writing style for tv as opposed to radio? Not a soul if I go by what i hear on radio news sometimes. The last place I saw a pronunciation list on the wall was in VOBs newsroom in March 2012 and I was heartened. Yet I lived to hear announcers at that station fumble with words on air. CBC has its fair share of blunders as well.
    Journalism (print and broadcast) in our island has been in a hot mess for a while.
    I deem it important to state that I am in another time zone right now and this is after work activity. Lonely me found Barbados Underground for comfort in this dark, cold place…

  6. So sorry to hear of your loneliness Irene.I know I miss you from the Ho and Sickle bar in Belleplaine and you will not be surprised that besides standard English not spoken so as to be understood by those of us who were sent to an English Grammar School in the West Indies,the administration with which you have the misfortune to be associated ,is faring no better on the Confidence factor,nor on the Current Account factor.In short we still up duck’s guts for all the talk and flying wunna doing wid we money and wunna still not producing results that are meaningful.

  7. @ Irene
    It is nice to hear from you, and if you are in London it will be nice to catch up. But, in case there is a mis-understanding, I have the highest appreciation of many of our great journalists: Carlton Prout, Robert Best, Carl Moore, and numerous others. These were the people who gave me the idea of journalism as a career. I was just lucky.
    @ Robert Ross
    I have worked for some of the great British tabloids, including the News of the World and Sunday People, and spent about 14 years on the wonderfully professional Daily Mail. They are staffed with many excitingly competent people.

    @ Ross

    I have worked for many of the great British tabloids, bea

  8. Miss Irene I thoroughly enjoyed your posting. I am heartened you find our sometimes divided and raucous company a comfort. Keep warm and please return to Bim safely.

  9. In the Saturday Sun of today, Saturday, November 30, 2013, there is a news article – entitled Stuck In Classic Debt – that looks at how many predominantly English speaking Caribbean countries are on the list of the world’s highest indebted countries.

    Best’s article is premised on the Economist magazine’s very recent coverage of the growing mountain of so-called debt that the governments of these countries, Jamaica, Bahamas, Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis, et al, have been racking up, and the failure of these governments to rein in such so-public debt, to cut so-called spending, and to help bring about national material growth.

    What is stunning about the article, though, is Best’s reference to a statement in the same magazine by Carl Ross of Oppenheimer – a prominent securities firm – that a lot of Caribbean countries are stuck individually in a classic debt trap from which they must extricate themselves; that they must cut so-called government spending but that in doing so they would further reduce already low levels of GDP growth.

    What makes the actual statement even more jolting is the fact that, as was already explained in the first of the PDC’s posts above – under this same thread – the government hardly gets nominal incomes payments anytime; which, in such circumstances, therefore means that the government hardly makes nominal expenditure.

    Also, what is even more revolting about that type of horrendously false argument is the fact too, as was explained by the PDC too in our second post – under this same thread – that, in such cases where it is falsely purported by some people that the government is grossing all these nominal revenues and rolling out all these nominal expenditures, what they are really referring to is the most prodigious most sickening most miasmatic manipulation and use of false, fraudulent, and fictitious numbers in respect of the government’s so-called accounting/reporting process.

    Furthermore, what we are stating hereby is that there is NO relationship that therefore exists between what tiny amount the government really spends out of what little market incomes payments it gets, and another BIG FALSE FRAUDULENT FICTITIOUS principle – GDP value, simply because the basis upon this GDP value is founded – the THEORY OF VALUE – as is found in the useless academic social discipline of economics – is not only highly flawed and irrational but is also impractical and non-existent in real human behavioral terms.

    Thus, reducing what little government spending there is has NO impact on what does NOT exist – GDP value.

    Furthermore, some people within and without the government have been producing these false, fraudulent fictitious numbers that have NO corresponding basis in money and its actual use by the relevant persons in the commercial business realms. and which therefore must point to the total overstating inflating whenever of the total actual amounts of remunerations (represented by money) that are received by the relevant others and then eventually passed on by them to the relevant others including the apposite financial institutions. What is even worse than that is the example of the reckless and grotesque estimation that is made by the Central Bank of Barbados of the actual contribution to the annual gross remunerations of this country by the core financial sector, even when it is so patently clear that there is no amount of money that the constituent elements of this very irrational unproductive inefficient core financial sector can use themselves to make money or cost money, and when there is no amount of money that this core sector can use to convert money from being a non-consumable financial commodity, to being a consumable commercial commodity, and to convert it from the status of being a measure of remunerations, to being a tradeable commodity.

    Nevertheless, what exist therefore – and for purposes of directly contradicting those utterly false and erroneous beliefs and for purposes of the elucidation of this discussion- are the constantly moving relationships that exist between the amount of local money that is in circulation in the country at any given time, and what little money the government actually gets in terms of nominal incomes nominal payments from the relevant others(miniscule relationship); the amount in TAXATION it criminally wrongly evilly imposes on and gets from out of the remunerations of the relevant others (only to be represented by actual money) (a substantial relationship) ; and the amount (of use) of money it authorizes on agreements with itself, the relevant others and with the relevant financial institutions, and – inclusive of money derived from TAXATION – that has to be and is actually transferred from the relevant some others – including the relevant financial institutions – to the relevant some others (government workers, businesses, pensioners, etc)( very substantial relationship).

    Hence, by a certain future coalitional government, and of which the PDC will be part of, PROCEEDING TO ABOLISH EVIL WICKED TAXATION, PROCEEDING TO ABOLISH the issuing of government paper, PROCEEDING TO SUBSTANTIALLY REDUCE the REAL ACTUAL COST OF USE OF MONEY (local), PROCEEDING to help create a POST-PUBLIC DEBT society, et al, and furthermore by such a regime making sure the government of Barbados puts in place the alternative and “right” political financial systems and strategies in place of those things that are to be abolished and too that will be put in place in support of those things that will replace those systems strategies that will be brought to an end, and that will help realize the government itself making use of actual money in every possible way in the business commercial realms of this country, will mean that there shall be the basis simultaneously laid for the evolution of tremendous people and remuneration and money/use relationships and conditions for unprecedented greater levels of material social production and distribution of goods and services brought about and maintained in this country.


  10. Corrections

    Owing to the fact that this post was not proof read we make the following corrections:-

    1) The title of the Saturday Sun article is Stuck in Classic Debt Trap, and not Stuck in Classic Debt, as we earlier had rendered.

    2) The article was wriiten by Mr Tony Best. It was inappropriate that we simply just made reference in the second paragraph to Best’s article…..

    3) We withdraw the connection that we made in our last post between our purporting that Mr Ross made such a comment as was described above and that it was carried in the said Economist magazine. We are satisfied – for right now – that that was NOT the case.

    We hope that the following errors do not help to take away from the focus of the readers of the last PDC post, in their attempt to understand the very fundamental points we have made in the post itself.


  11. PDC. You doth write too much long winded repetitive shite that is discouraging to the taste of reading. Please make your points concise and palatable to the eye. Give new information and make your posting something to read first. You are not communicating properly. It seems as only you understand what you propose. It is even tiring to look at the article.

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